Asean, the Quad and Aukus are the load-bearing pillars on which Indo-Pacific security will rest in the coming decades. The first is a norm-builder, the second a problem-solver, and the third a deterrent of military conflict.
This is Asia’s new security architecture.
Asean’s annual meetings of leaders, foreign ministers, and defence chiefs are a foundation of inclusive diplomacy and cooperation.
The informal Quad dialogue among the United States, Japan, India and Australia delivers vital public goods like Covid-19 vaccine doses, while also holding up the broader rules-based order.
The Australia-United Kingdom-United States (Aukus) pact promises leading-edge defensive technology necessary to maintain a military balance of power.
Reinforcing Asean institutions
Asean is the largest of the three organisations, and its strength derives from its 10 members’ commitment to unity. The differences among Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar do require supreme patience to find common ground. But Asean’s common allegiance to the peaceful resolution of disputes, reverence for sovereignty, and regard for the rule of law strengthen regional norms.
In an era of resurgent major power competition, Asean tries to dampen hyper-nationalism, encourage commerce, and establish peaceful coexistence in Asia. Yet its record of converting dialogue into action is less than perfect: China sometimes divides Asean members from one another.
That might be acceptable were South-east Asian countries not struggling to ward off China’s assertive maritime behaviour.
Peaceful South-east Asian states locked in dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea must endure a Chinese campaign of maritime coercion, including Xi’an Y-20 heavy military transport planes holding drills in the Spratly Islands, plus intrusive coast guard, maritime militia and survey vessel activity in the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
China may soon use a fleet of drones to help police its controversial nine-dash line claims over almost the entirety of the South China Sea and the maritime features claimed by neighbouring states.
By contrast, US freedom of navigation operations underscore international law, including a 2016 arbitral tribunal’s judgment against some of China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea. As US Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro argues: “No nation has the right to claim longstanding international waters as their own.”
But if Asean is incapable of standing up to coercion, and US freedom of navigation operations impose no penalty for malign action, what is the value of rules and norms? Asean needs help.
Enter the Quad and Aukus. The level of cooperation exhibited by these two mechanisms is a sea change in the history of regional security. While neither the Quad nor Aukus will quickly solve the problem of maritime coercion in the South China Sea, both are complementary groups that enhance Asean-centred institutions.
The Quad as problem-solver
The Quad, shorthand for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is the most consequential security arrangement emerging in Asia. The dialogue between the US, Japan, India and Australia questions the logic of Chinese dominance over the Indo-Pacific region as a fait accompli.
An embryonic body that proclaims little to do with China, the Quad is a milestone in regional security architecture. Not only does the Quad reinforce established Asean institutions, but it also symbolises the potential to develop shared rules and solutions in the region, and it is also catalysing a mix of minilateral security partnerships such as Aukus.
The Quad’s strategy and action functions are not aimed against any other country but instead favour universal principles. The twin purposes are to preserve the liberal rules-based order and to deliver solutions for pressing global challenges.
The duality of rule-minding and troubleshooting establishes a virtuous agenda to which other governments can also contribute. As Quad leaders asserted in a Sept 24 joint statement, their goal is “promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”.
Three days earlier, US President Joe Biden’s remarks to the United Nations General Assembly underscored this approach. “We are not seeking a new Cold War,” he said, adding that the US is determined not to “tip from responsible competition to conflict”. Using the Quad to elevate shared principles and find solutions to urgent challenges, such as the pandemic and climate change, is a wise way to build durable peace.
The group expressed its dedication to strengthening the rules of the road in its statement of principles on technology design, development, governance and use. The four Quad leaders said technology should show respect for human rights and support “an open, accessible, and secure technology ecosystem, based on mutual trust and confidence”.
Meanwhile, the Quad leaders staked out ways to meet urgent challenges. They are on track to deliver 1.2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine globally, in part by expanding the manufacturing capacity at India’s Biological E.
Similarly, creating a Los Angeles-Mumbai-Sydney-Yokohama port network to innovate on zero-emission shipping corridors is a tangible way of fighting climate change.
The Quad also made progress in emerging technology, cyberspace and space.
The leaders announced plans to establish Technical Standards Contact Groups, a Semiconductor Supply Chain Initiative and an Infrastructure Coordination Group. They also announced a senior cyber group to create a trustworthy digital infrastructure.
Further, they formed a space working group focusing on sharing satellite data for peaceful purposes.
And a Quad Fellowship programme will bring 100 graduate students a year from the four countries into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) programmes at US universities. This human network will build a strategic technology partnership whose benefits in science and technology will ripple throughout the region.
From health and climate to telecommunications and outer space, science and technology run through the Quad’s principles and standards, as well as its action-oriented problem-solving. Leadership over critical and emerging technologies determines whether a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific will move forward and adapt or devolve into a coercive and closed regional order.
Aukus propels subs and minilateralism
While the Quad is only tangentially a security body, it provides the ballast for alliances and small-group security networking, ensuring strategic autonomy and interoperability.
That foundation leads us to Aukus, easily the most ambitious new minilateral defence arrangement. The US and UK will help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), and provide the infrastructure and training to support them.
A few naysayers see folly in transferring sensitive nuclear propulsion technology to Australia. Still, officials in Canberra, Washington and London envision a far-reaching commitment to ensure a favourable balance of power for enhancing military deterrence.
By joining the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and India as members of the SSN club, Australia will gain power and endurance at sea that is impossible with conventional propulsion.
SSNs can better defend Australian territory and contribute to a coalition of like-minded countries, ensuring choke-point security throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
Although the Aukus pact surfaced abruptly, Australia’s bid to acquire a more capable fleet of submarines has long been lurking beneath the surface.
It has been half a century since China became the first Asian country to deploy nuclear-powered submarines. Today, its navy’s submarine force is large and diverse.
If reports are accurate that Russia and China are collaborating on next-generation nuclear reactors for naval platforms, then the Royal Australian Navy’s decision to run silent and deep is readily understood.
Aukus is not just a technological workaround to build SSNs but also a flexible type of defence arrangement that responds to China’s maritime bullying and unsurpassed military modernisation programmes. Networked security alignments and cooperative agreements are less rigid than formal alliances. Ad hoc multilateralism focused on specific issues can help plug the gaping holes in Asia’s limited security frameworks.
The recent inclusion of Australia in the annual India-US-Japan Malabar exercise, held in August, does not detract from the fact that this naval exercise takes place outside the Quad framework.
The reality is that advanced defence cooperation is easier at the bilateral or trilateral level. Indeed, the most advanced joint US-India defence work, including information sharing and co-development of air-launched aerial vehicles, occurs between the two countries.
South-east Asian countries and other regional actors have a significant role to play in helping to preserve a rough balance of power and a robust commitment to principles and rules of the road. Smaller constellations of cooperation can reinforce Asean institutions, spur them out of paralysis and aid the larger quest for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
The solidification of the Quad and the creation of Aukus demonstrate both continuity and change in the regional order. These multilateral bodies are emblematic of Asia’s new security architecture, in which minilateralism reinforces both bilateral relations and the multilateral institutions centred on Asean.
But the thickening of ties among the Quad alongside the Aukus defence agreement shows governments adapting to preserve peace and security amid a shifting security landscape.
No one argues that orchestrating a multitude of arrangements will be automatic or pain-free. Skilful management of unintended consequences will be necessary. But Asean, the Quad and Aukus-like minilateralism can all contribute to advancing a shared Indo-Pacific dream of peace, freedom of the seas, and independence.
Read in The Straits Times